Fur Traders’ Keelboat

Keelboats were long, narrow craft, usually about seventy-feet in length, though the first keelboats used by explorers and fur traders were smaller. They had a keel providing stability, especially for upriver travel. Unlike flatboats, they were designed to return up the river. As many as twenty-five men would work a keelboat upstream, using a variety of methods: Poling with “shoulder poles,” which rested on the bottom, and which the boatman pushed, walking from bow to stern as he did so; tow-lines, called cordelles, which were man-hauled from the riverbank in a method called cordelling {some keelboats also used a hawser (rope) which was mounted to a reel on board that could be attached to a tree or a stump on shore and wound in}; overhanging branches were used, grasped by the men from the deck, drawing the keelboat along in a method called “bushwhacking”, and finally there was a mast and sail useful depending on any prevailing wind (as the river changed direction in ox-bows etc, the sail would be hoisted or reefed). The boats moved upstream at about a mile-an-hour; in decent weather, with a fifteen hour day routine.

The first keelboats had a rear cabin, while later craft usually had a larger center cabin. The early downriver trade from the western and northern tributaries was mainly in furs and raw materials such as shingles, while the eastern tributaries, especially the Ohio, contributed more manufactured goods, and farm produce traded for en route. Natchez and New Orleans became flush with all manner of goods and produce. Arriving in New Orleans, keelboat operators would sell and trade to acquire a profitable cargo of agricultural and other manufactured wares, Kentucky whisky, and farm produce etc for the upriver trade to those communities that depended on such supplies.

For a time, the keelboats were the regular packets of the rivers, since they were not broken up at the end of the voyage and required trained crews for their navigation. The keelboatmen were the envy and terror of the simple folk along the shores. A wild, turbulent class, ready to fight and to dance, equally enraptured with the rough tune of a fiddle, or the sound of the war-whoop, which promised the joyous diversion of a fight. They were drinkers, gamblers and self-professed ‘half-alligator’, ‘half-horse’, but were also partial to a sentimental song.

This upriver trade was a strenuous and very time-consuming endeavour which the early steamboats gradually absorbed as they ventured ever further up the river system. Keelboats continued to be used upriver on some tributaries where steamboats couldn’t navigate, as late as 1855. Keelboatmen turned to work on steamboats, flatboats and rafts. Even though steamboats increased in number, there was still sufficient downstream trade for flatboats, which also increased, since traders now had an easy, faster way to return upriver.

Keelboat at Founding of St. Louis, 1764

In this traditional depiction of the founding of St. Louis, French fur traders from New Orleans, Pierre Laclede Liguestand and Auguste Chouteau, land their keeboat near a high bluff 18 miles south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers ~ a perfect site from which to trade with Native Americans in the fur-rich lands to the west.

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So Laclede decided to locate his post on this high, windswept ridge; from it he could look westward to the horizon that held the destiny of those who would settle in his town. He notched a few trees to mark the spot and said to young Chouteau: “You will come here as soon as navigation opens, and will cause this place to be cleared, in order to form our settlement after a plan that I shall give you.” … Returning to Fort de Chartres, Laclede enthusiastically reported to de Villiers that he had found “a situation where he was going to form a settlement, which might become, hereafter, one of the finest cities of America—so many advantages were embraced in this site, by its locality and its central position for forming settlements.” He had forgotten his original purpose of establishing a trading post, and had begun to dream of founding in city. Spring came early in 1764. Soon after February 1 the ice broke on the river—a boat with oars might go upstream. The impatient Lacléde sent young Chouteau with thirty men to clear the site. They arrived late in the afternoon of February 14; the next morning they began cutting down trees to build a warehouse for their trade goods, and cabins for themselves. The work progressed rapidly according to Lacléde’s plan. Streets were marked out on the hillside. At the center of the village was space for a marketplace, the Place d’Armes; adjoining it was one site reserved for a church and another for Lacléde‘s house. In April, Laclede visited the infant village. Finding that the work had gone well under Chouteau’s direction, he returned to Fort de Chartres to arrange for bringing up his trade goods. He named the new settlement “St. Louis” in honor of King Louis XV, the reigning French monarch, whose patron saint was Louis IX.
Credit: ~ Saint Louis: An Informal History of the City and its People, 1764-1865, by Charles van Ravenswaay.

St. Louis became American when Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, doubling the size of the United States. When Jefferson sent explorers Lewis & Clark from St. Louis to chart the new Louisiana Territory in 1804, more than 1,000 people, mostly French, Spanish, Indian and both free and slave blacks, lived in the city which was already the center of the fur trade in America. Two years later, after the triumphant explorers returned from the Pacific with their Corps of Discovery, St. Louis became the last stop for mountain men and trappers heading to the newly opened frontier.

An early nickname for St. Louis was “Mound City”, derived from the earth mounds left by the Mississippians, the original Indian inhabitants of the valley.

Loading the Lewis and Clark Keelboat, 1803

Most historians believe that the Lewis and Clarke keelboat, referred to as a “barge” or a “bateaux” in the journals, was built in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River, where most early keelboats were constructed at the time. Ordered by Meriwether Lewis to his own design, it was 55 feet long with an 8 foot beam, was outfitted with 11 oars on each side, had a 32 foot mast, and could carry 12 tons of cargo, drawing only two to three feet of water. The boatright was a drunk, and Lewis was held up waiting for it to be completed in the Summer of 1803. It was ready on August 31.

Keelboat on the Missouri  circa 1825-32

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Late in 1824 General Ashley, journeying west to reap the winter’s harvest of furs, approached the mountains by way of the little-known South Platte route and the Colorado Rockies and explored the lower Green River. In the summer of 1825 on Henry’s Fork of the Green (near the Wyoming-Utah line) he inaugurated the annual rendezvous of the mountain trappers, which provided a more flexible system of fur trading than the “fixed fort system” which had hitherto prevailed in the Western fur trade. The beaver catch brought in this first year was of such magnitude that Ashley was assured of a substantial profit. With Smith and a strong guard he took his prize by pack train to the Bighorn, by bullboats to the mouth of the Yellowstone, and by keelboats down the Missouri River to St. Louis.
Credit: ~ Chapter 6, Jackson Hole: Era of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, 1825-32.

‘Up River ~ On The Yellowstone’ 

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A keelboat being dragged up the Yellowstone by early fur traders, taking trade goods to the ‘Rendezvous’. The men are using a cordelle, a rope fastened to the mast. The usual method of ascending river was poling using poles eighteen to twenty feet long. The poles would have a crutch on one end into which the men would set their shoulder. On the bottom end would be a knob or iron shoe to set against the river bottom. The men would walk to the stern. When each pair of men reached the stern, they would run back to the bow and begin the process over again. With a crew of twenty, at any given time 16 would be walking toward the stern and four returning to the bow. A third method of ascending the river during highwater would be “bushwhacking;” that is, pulling on the bushes and willows along the shore. The goods constituted a veritable department store: cloth, butcher and scalping knives, rifles, mackinaw blankets, vermillion, powder horns, tools, bridles, Spanish saddles, sugar, ink, paper, quills, flints, calico, flannel, shirts, kettles, traps, axes, branding irons, wool socks, combs, beads, rope, four, coffee, and, of course, alcohol. In 1830, as an example, William Sublette carried to the Rendezvous on the Wind River some $30,000 in goods in ten ox-drawn wagons along with 12 beef cattle and a milk cow.
Credit: ~ Wyoming Tales and Trails

Keelboat or Barge on the Mississippi, 1832

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The keel and its larger cousin, the barge, resembled small sailing ships. Keelboats were described by one Ohio pioneer as “long and narrow, sharp at bow and stern, and of light draft.” Named for their four-inch-square keel shock absorbers, these boats averaged sixty feet in length, eight feet in width, and could carry a burden of from twenty to forty tons of freight up or down the main channel or a shallow tributary stream. A typical keel or barge was outfitted with sails, masts, and rigging, carried a leather boat pump, had cleated running boards from which the crew peopled the craft, and featured a cabin “enclosed and roofed with boards or shingles.” Although forced out of business by steamers on the Lower Ohio and Lower Mississippi in the 1820s and 1830s, the keels retreated to the Upper Ohio, Upper Mississippi, and tributary streams, where they continued to work well into the century.
Credit: ~ Western Rivermen, 1763-1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse, by Michael Allen.

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The river’s earliest commerce was in great barges ~ keelboats, broadhorns. They floated and sailed from the upper rivers to New Orleans, changed cargoes there, and were tediously warped and poled back by hand. A voyage down and back sometimes occupied nine months. In time this commerce increased until it gave employment to hordes of rough and hardy men; rude, uneducated, brave, suffering terrific hardships with sailor-like stoicism; heavy drinkers, coarse frolickers in moral sties like the Natchez-under-the-hill of that day, heavy fighters, reckless fellows, every one, elephantinely jolly, foul-witted, profane; prodigal of their money, bankrupt at the end of the trip, fond of barbaric finery, prodigious braggarts; yet, in the main, honest, trustworthy, faithful to promises and duty, and often picturesquely magnanimous.

By and by the steamboat intruded. Then for fifteen or twenty years, these men continued to run their keelboats down-stream, and the steamers did all of the upstream business, the keelboatmen selling their boats in New Orleans, and returning home as deck passengers in the steamers.

But after a while the steamboats so increased in number and in speed that they were able to absorb the entire commerce; and then keelboating died a permanent death. The keelboatman became a deck hand, or a mate, or a pilot on the steamer; and when steamer-berths were not open to him, he took a berth on a Pittsburgh coal-flat, or on a pine-raft constructed in the forests up toward the sources of the Mississippi.
Credit: ~ Chapter 3, Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain.

Keelboat Under Sail on the Missouri ~ 1833

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In March 1833, Bodmer and the prince reached St. Louis. They booked passage upriver on the Yellow Stone, the same steamer that had taken (George) Catlin to Fort Union two years before. They made the connection from Fort Pierre to Fort Union aboard the Assiniboine, arriving at Kenneth McKenzie’s fiefdom June 18.

Bodmer sketched and painted the entire trek.

After six days at Fort Union, Maximilian and Bodmer pushed west. They took passage on the Flora, a keel boat bound to Fort McKenzie, near the mouth of the Marias River, in present-day Montana. The thickets along the Missouri River banks were populated with grizzlies. Dark streams of buffalo, like trails of molasses down a tall stack of pancakes, still forded the river in enormous numbers.

The travelers reached Fort McKenzie on Aug. 9. Bodmer created portraits of Blackfoot and Assiniboine chiefs and warriors. He recorded with his watercolors the so-weird White Cliffs stretch of the Missouri, today designated a wild and scenic river.

Maximilian considered spending the winter at Fort McKenzie; however, hostilities broke out between the Piegan Indians camped at the fort and Assiniboine and Cree Indians. Finally he chose, as Lewis and Clark before him, to winter at Fort Clark with the Mandan people.

The American Fur Company agent James Kipp put up a two-room cabin for Maximilian and Bodmer at Fort Clark. It must have been a rush job, because the clay caulking quickly dried, cracked and fell out. The cabin was well ventilated that winter.

One of the Fort Clark residents at that time was Toussaint Charbonneau, husband of Sakakawea and a member of the Corps of Discovery. In his 70s, Charbonneau worked for Maximilian as an interpreter.

The winter at Fort Clark was tough. It was, of course, cold, and worse, the food was poor. By spring, Maximilian had scurvy so bad that he had to be carried to the boat for the trip back down river. Through it all, Bodmer worked.
Credit: ~ Capturing the Upper Missouri in Such Painstaking Detail, by Ken Rogers.

Note: ~ This superb acquatint engraving from a Bodmer watercolor is titled Camp of the Gros Ventres on the Prairies. The keelboat is the Flora, depicted on August 5th, 1833. Here is a close-up of the keelboat.

Mackinaw Boat on the Missouri

Mackinaw boats were used on the Missouri and are sometimes mistakenly referred to as keelboats. Although similar in appearance to a small, cabinless keelboat, they were constructed with flat bottoms and were therefore better suited to shallower water and downstream work, while still being able to carry ample cargo.

This engraving by Outhwaite is based on a Karl Bodmer watercolor painting, and was hand-colored by Bodmer. Swiss-born, he was engaged by Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied to provide a record of his travels in North America, specifically among the Plains Indians, from 1832 to 1834.

In October 1833, the party began their journey back down the Missouri River in a Mackinaw boat from Fort Union to Fort Clark (30 October to 8 November), where they planned to spend the winter. En route, they would bivouac before nightfall. Here, they have found a sheltered campsite, and while one man covers some cargo, another is cooking over a fire as the party gather around for warmth, anticipating their meal. A man stands on the boat, on watch.

Mackinaw Boat Under Attack on the Missouri

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Once the goods were traded for furs at the Rendezvous, the companies had the difficulty of transporting the pelts back to St. Louis.  The furs would be transported via Bad Pass to the head of navigation on the Bighorn River near its confluence with the Yellowstone. There, keelboats used to transport goods to trading posts on the upper Missouri, or homemade boats would be used to transport the pelts back to St. Louis. The homemade boats would be of two types, “mackinaws” or “bullboats.” The mackinaw was a wooden boat. The boat would be divided into four sections by two bulkheads and would be propelled by oarsmen. The rudder at the rear was steered by a man known as the “patron.”

The bullboat was constructed of the hide of buffalo bulls, stretched over a willow frame and made water tight with either pitch or buffalo tallow and ashes. The bullboat was extremely light and, thus, had a very shallow draft suitable for navigation in which the river’s depth would be measured in inches.
Credit: ~ Wyoming Tales and Trails

Note: ~ Mackinaws were flat-bottomed and used on the Missouri.  They surely didn’t have to think about battery recommendations for their boats!

Fort Benton, with Keelboats and Mackinaw ~ 1855

Situated on the Missouri River between the mouth of the Marias River and the Falls, Fort Benton was the American Fur Company’s trading post. This fine oil painting, titled Old Fort Benton, by western artist John Ford Clymer shows a variety of boats crowding the riverbank in 1855. A trapper and his Indian wife are paddling a dugout canoe and towing an Indian-style bullboat loaded with furs, as they look for a place to land. The graceful open boat in the center is a flat-bottomed Mackinaw, while some keelboats are moored on the right.

The first steamboat, the Chippewa, arrived at Fort Benton in July, 1860, after a journey of more than 2,285 miles from St. Louis.

Poling a Keelboat

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At Galena (Illinois) we took a steamboat for the mouth of the Chippewa. Arriving at Read’s Landing, we found two raft crews about to start up river with a keelboat load of supplies. These keelboats varied in size. An average boat was perhaps sixty feet long, ten feet wide and about four feet deep. A “running board,” about two feet wide extended the full length of the boat on both sides. The boat was propelled by poles. These poles were about sixteen feet long, light and strong, with a steel point on the lower end and a knob or button on the upper end. From twelve to twenty men were required to propel the boat. An ordinary raft crew consisted of eight men and a pilot. It was a very common arrangement for two raft crews to pole a loaded keelboat up river and float the boat down with the next raft. One man acted as pilot and an equal number of men, with their long poles, took their places on the running board at the bow end of the boats. With the steel pointed end of their pole on the river bottom, and the knob end against their shoulders the men, in a stooping position, walked to the stern end, then quickly raised their poles and ran back, to the bow end to repeat the operation.

Attached to the bow and coiled up in the boat was light, strong rope, called a “cordel,” which was used to pull the boat through the rapids, or where the channel was too deep for poling. The raft pilot in charge of the keelboat was a big half-breed by the name of La Satte, who lived in Chippewa Falls. My partner and I made arrangements with him to work our passage up river. It was new work to both of us but we stood it all right, and I made several more trips that same season, also worked on the keelboats off and on for several seasons more. It was the middle of October, 1855, when my partner and myself arrived at Chippewa Falls.
Credit: ~ Memoirs of Bruno Vanette, Historical Society of Wisconsin.

‘Big Sky’ Keelboat

This is a promotional photograph for the 1952 movie ‘The Big Sky’, directed by Howard Hawks, and based on the novel by A.B.Guthrie Jr. Known for its magnificent scenery and the keelboat ‘Mandan’, the movie starred, Kirk Douglas, Dewy Martin and Elizabeth Threatt as a Blackfoot Princess named Teal Eye.

Collector Dave Thomson kindly supplied this rare photograph, reproduced here as a fine representation of a fur traders’ keelboat.

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During 1809 John Choisser settled at Shawneetown. His occupation then was that of a keelboat man, transporting cargo – mostly salt – from Shawneetown to New Orleans. John had started out on a keelboat trip to New Orleans. He had just pulled out into the stream when he spied a Nancy Sutton sitting on the grassy bank of the Ohio “combing her long brown hair.” The New Orleans trip was delayed. At first sight he decided to meet and marry the girl with such beautiful hair. The two were married in 1809. After his marriage John continued his keelboat trips to New Orleans. His last homeward trip, in 1811, was the most eventful of any he had spent on the river. On the way up-stream, he met, coming down, the New Orleans, the first steamboat to ply the western rivers. He experienced one of the New Madrid earthquake shocks. And when he finally reached Shawneetown, Nancy introduced him to a brand-new son, William, the first of 13 children – 12 boys and one girl.
Credit: ~ An Illinois Family, by Lowell A. Dearinger.

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Our barge was the best that ever ascended this river, and manned with twenty stout oars-men. Mr. Lisa, who had been a sea-captain, took much pains in rigging his boat with a good mast, and main and top-sail: these being great helps in the navigation of this river. Our equipage is chiefly composed of young men, though several have already made a voyage to the upper Missouri, of which they are exceedingly proud, and on that account claim a kind of precedence over the rest of the crew. We are in all, twenty-five men, and completely prepared for defence. There is, besides, a swivel on the bow of the boat, which, in case of attack, would make a formidable appearance: we have also two brass blunder- busses in the cabin, one over my birth, and the other over that of Mr. Lisa. These precautions were absolutely necessary from the hostility of the Sioux bands, who, of late had committed several murders and robberies on the whites, and manifested such a disposition that it was believed impossible for us to pass through their country. The greater part of the merchandise, which consisted of strouding, blankets, lead, tobacco, knifes, guns, beads, etc., was concealed in a false cabin, ingeniously contrived for the purpose: in this wav presenting as little as possible to tempt the savages.
Credit:Brackenridge’s Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River in 1811by H. Brackenridge.

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The keel-boat which my brothers had in 1828, I think, was the first which navigated the Kansas river. After I came the keel boat was used altogether on the Kaw River (Kansas River). We would take a load of goods up in August and keep it there until the following spring, when we would bring it down loaded with peltries. At the mouth of the Kaw we shipped on steamboat to St. Louis. The keel-boats were made in St. Louis. They were rib-made boats, shaped like the hull of a steamboat and decked over. They were about 8 or 10 feet across the deck and 5 or 6 feet below deck. They were rigged with one mast and had a rudder, though we generally took the rudder off and used a long oar for steering. There were four row locks on each side. Going up the Kaw river we pulled all the way; about 15 miles a day. Going down it sometimes took a good many days, as it did going up, on account of the low water. I have taken a month to go down from my trading house at American Chief (or Mission) creek, many times lightening the boat with skiffs; other times going down in a day. I never went with the boat above my trading house at the American Chief village. No other traders except myself and brothers ran keel boats on the Kaw. We pulled up sometimes by the willows which lined the banks of the river.

Credit: ~ Frederick Chouteau, early trader on the Kansas River.